Denver Bridging Gaps for Walking and Pedaling

Over the past decade, Denver has built new pathways for the city's bipedal travelers, including the Millennium Bridge between LoHi and LoDo. Now the city is working on new projects to make the city more navigable by foot and bike, including a pedestrian bridge in the RiNo neighborhood that will cross a tangle of railroads and access the forthcoming light-rail station near Blake and 36th streets. Other parts of Denver still need help -- and some are starting to get it, with $10 million worth of projects in the works.
Denver is getting more active in expanding sidewalks, creating new paths, bikeways and pedestrian bridges to make the city more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.
When Denver officials drew up the city's 2014 budget last year, it articulated several top priorities. "Number one on their list was safety for biking and walking," explains Molly North, Executive Director of local advocacy organization BikeDenver. "So we have a very committed city council in terms of support for putting funding and resources toward safe biking and walking options for Denver residents."

In all, the city has more than $10 million in bike and pedestrian projects underway or close to getting underway. The funds support bike lanes, crosswalks, signage, pedestrian and bike signals, and more. 
Not that it's starting from scratch: The city already has an extensive network of opportunities for bikers and walkers. "We're fortunate to have 80 miles of trails in Denver proper and 100 miles of bike lanes as well as almost 50 miles…of shared lane markings, and we really do have a bike lane network that is interconnected and it is hundreds of miles of bike lanes," North says. (DRCOG hosts an interactive bike map here.)
A bridge to RiNoThe RiNo Art District is remarkably cut off from much of Denver's pedestrians and bicyclists by a plethora of railroads.
There are still problem areas. "Our neighborhood is in dire need of both pedestrian sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes," says Andrew Feinstein of Exdo Management, Co-Chair of RiNo (River North) Urban Improvement Committee. The RiNo Art District, an up-and-coming neighborhood bursting with creative enterprises, is remarkably cut off from much of Denver's pedestrians and bicyclists by, ironically, a plethora of railroads that once connected a nation, but now divide a neighborhood.
"All RiNo stakeholders -- residents, property owners, business owners as well as our vibrant artist community -- have been pushing for the pedestrian bridge for some time," Feinstein says. "In addition to 'unifying' RiNo between the two sides of the tracks, this bridge should help increase access to the other historic and culturally diverse neighborhoods surrounding RiNo such as Five Points, Curtis Park, Cole, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea."
"Many see RiNo leading the charge in Denver when it comes to bicycling as an alternative mode of transportation—not just for recreation but as a genuine alternative to driving," adds Justin Croft of Zeppelin Development and Feinstein's fellow RiNo Urban Improvement Committee Co-Chair.
To alleviate the problem and increase that access the city will soon start construction on a pedestrian bridge as well as a new light-rail station that will make it easier for the city's non-motorized travelers to get around. The bridge is still in planning stages and final costs haven't been determined says Emily Williams, Marketing and Communications Coordinator with the Denver Department of Public Works. "The bridge will span diagonally-northeast across the tracks," she explains. On the west side of Blake street it will be accessible by an elevator and stairs -- space constraints wouldn't allow ramp access. On the east side of Wazee Street, it will be accessible via a wrap-under switchback ramp and stair.
"That bridge as it is designed is more a pedestrian facility than it is a biking facility," BikeDenver's North says.
The elevator aspect particularly concerns her. "As a female who bikes often at night by myself I would definitely not use a facility that requires that I used an elevator on one side of it," she says. She's concerned that someone could follow her in. "Or if I get in the elevator, I don't know what's at the bottom when the door opens." Cyclists may choose to ride down 38th rather than dismount from their bikes to climb stairs, too.
Still, North commends the project. "One of the major deficiencies in the bike network is the connection between northeast and northwest Denver and that bridge is…going to increase the connectivity for people who bike and walk…and it is being installed in a community that is traditionally underserved," she says.
The Highland Bridge connects LoHi to LoDo.Case study: Connecting LoDo and LoHi
Increasing access to non-motorized transportation options can also have a big impact on local economic development. When Denver built the Denver Millennium Bridge, traversing I-25, it connected the LoDo (Lower Downtown) and LoHi (Lower Highlands) neighborhoods for pedestrians and, to a lesser extent, bicyclists. 
"The pedestrian and bike bridge over I-25 is a stellar example of the economic, cultural and social benefits that can happen when a divided neighborhood is reconnected," Croft says. 
Echoes North: "When city plans focus on moving people and not just moving cars it really increases the economic viability of neighborhoods and business districts and that's seen in the case of business districts."
"Creating the connectivity completely transformed that LoHi area and brought a lot of new businesses and a lot of economic development and I think its evident to kind of saying that providing the infrastructure really is a catalyst for improvement in the neighborhood," says Gosia Kung, a LEED-certified architect and Founder and Executive Director of WalkDenver, an organization working to promote better pedestrian infrastructure in Denver.
Kung thinks that Denver is on the right track in terms of newly built pedestrian projects like the recent project at Tennyson Street in Berkeley neighborhood. "It really transformed that street and it became the center of activity," she says. She also points out that new developments, particularly larger projects are considering different types of users.
On West Colfax Avenue, "The old St. Anthony's hospital is being demolished and what's being proposed is a neighborhood with complete streets more residential density, with local services and destinations with safer sidewalks," Kung says. "We're seeing a lot of developments that are mixed use which is really the key -- mix the residential with the commercial to provide enough residential density to support the businesses that also help provide those neighborhood destinations places for people to walk to."
That's great for new neighborhoods and those that live there. But there's a problem with many relatively older neighborhoods, particularly those built in the '60s and '70s, when there wasn't much emphasis on pedestrian access, according to Kung. "Montbello is one of the neighborhoods that is definitely lacking…both east and west from Federal could use sidewalks," she explains. "And the Westwood neighborhood is also lacking very basic pedestrian infrastructure."
More projects on the way
Denver hasn't made the same type of investment in sidewalks and pedestrian access that it has in bicycle access. Then again, they're different types of projects, some bike projects are easier. "Sometimes it's just a little bit of paint that allows for striping the bike lane and that's a huge improvement," Kung says. "Walkways and bridges are kind of ambitious projects."
Case in point: "A bridge over tracks generally costs between $3 and $6 million," Williams says.
And even building a sidewalk is challenging, Kung notes. "There are just two options. You either narrow down the street and move the curbs in, which is expensive and is an engineering challenge because it also affects storm drainage -- so it becomes complex. Or it means widening the right of way, which means purchasing private property that allows for construction of a sidewalk." On one block alone, that can mean 10 or more deals with residents and, over a series of blocks, considerably more.
Regardless, Denver is improving pedestrian and bicycle access. One of the most recent projects, getting ready for its second phase is the green-hued bike lane on 15th Street that runs for over a mile in LoDo. "Phase two will convert the bikeway to a protected bike lane," North says, with a vertical separation between cars and bikes consisting of thin wands. "The 15th Street Bikeway is totally new to the city of Denver." As such it help serve as a test bed for what does and doesn't work.
Denver is actively pursuing other projects, too. For instance, Williams says the city recently widened the sidewalk on Evans Avenue from Bannock to the South Platte River and completed a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Cherry Creek at Kentucky Avenue. It also painted new bike lanes in Globeville and Five Points. "In 2014, construction will begin on the Colorado Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge over I-25…between Colorado Boulevard and Evans Avenue," she says.
The city also is working with the Colorado Department of Transportation to reconstruct U.S. 6 between I-25 and Knox Court, according to Williams. "Included in this project are several local improvements to parks, trails, roadways and the installation of a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over U.S. 6," she says. That project will feature bike lanes on Knox Court and other bike facilities at the Platte River.
"The City has also allocated $700,000 of the annual capital improvement budget for implementation of projects from Denver Moves, a bicycle and multi-use network plan,"  Williams adds. The department also plans to spend $1.5 million to $2 million to maintain the existing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in 2014.
To learn more about Denver's pedestrian and bike plans, visit Denver's Capital Projects Center here.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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